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Anne-ticipation

Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, a Team of Designers Known as 'The Boys,' Are Eager to Restore the Legendary Design House to Its Former Glory

September 24, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Every September, the fall issues of major American fashion magazines land at newsstands. As fat as big-city phone directories, their glossy pages are chockablock with photographs of smiling, lanky girls; pouty, lanky girls; vacuous and inscrutable lanky girls, all dressed in the precisely styled thing that proclaims, "This is 1998, and I know exactly what to wear."

Amid a sea of cashmere, shiny watches and ruby lipstick, a stark picture of a woman, her black-jacketed back to the camera as she stares out a window, commands attention. Her broad shoulders announce that she is a person of authority. She holds a pair of glasses in her right hand; strands of her expensively tinted hair frame a discreet pearl earring. But more striking than her wardrobe or grooming is the impression that she has something serious on her mind. This is a woman of substance. Two words stretch across the bottom of the page, just beneath her trim behind: ANNE KLEIN.

The next page and a whopping 30 advertising pages that follow feature real women, not professional models, wearing Anne Klein clothes and accessories. The Significant Woman, as the new management at the recently tarnished company have named their $7-million campaign, celebrates women of achievement.

There are no business school models for such a comeback push. No other clothing company was once the undisputed leader in its category, saw its competitors gobble away at its position, lost a series of designers and yet survived with incredibly high name recognition and enough capital and determination to try to reclaim its status. Searching for a comparison, Laura Wenke, Anne Klein vice president of marketing and communications, talked about the computer industry.

"I see some parallels between our situation and Macintosh," she said. "They were innovators with tremendous strength in their field, but then they were overrun by IBM. But maybe that isn't a good example, because they haven't come back. We expect to."

The new ads Wenke designed to jockey for attention in those bloated magazines are part of an extensive strategy that included hiring new designers, changing the name on the label and giving birth to new company divisions while mercy-killing others.

Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz was hired to shoot tableaux of women ranging in age from 27 to 70. A size 14 politician posed next to a size 2 ballerina. A professional basketball player, high-tech entrepreneur, novelist and medical researcher--30 diverse women in all--faced the camera wearing deliberately nonchalant combinations of leather, wool, corduroy and velvet. But their most important job was to project the philosophy of the campaign: that intelligence, imagination and conviction give a woman substance, and that no matter what a woman wears or does, without substance, there is no real style.

The architects of the turnaround call their effort "reimaging," an apt term in an industry in which a product is rarely trusted to be inherently desirable so marketing bears the responsibility for seducing the consumer.

Their labors constitute the latest chapter in the roller-coaster history of Anne Klein. That story is nothing less than a chronicle of the last 30 years of the business of American fashion.

Dramatic Breakdown

The tale of Anne Klein contains no dearth of drama, so it is only fitting that the act currently in play was introduced in advertisements composed of brief scenes.

"INTERIOR-DAY-ANNE KLEIN STUDIO-7:02 A.M."

"I had the dream again last night."

"Wow. What did she say this time?"

"Patio pajamas."

"Genius. And you're sure it wasn't Polly Mellen?"

"I'm sure."

"Spooky. But fabulous. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Never forget whose name is on the label."

"Let's get back to work."

The characters in this playlet, one of a series that ran in apparel trade publications last winter, are Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, a team of designers recruited by Anne Klein in January 1997. Polly Mellen is probably New York's oldest living fashion editor, a woman given to sweeping pronouncements such as "patio pajamas," uttered as if they were the answer to "What is the meaning of life?" The mysterious "she" is Anne Klein of course, who died in 1974, but whose name is, indeed, still on the label.

Everyone at Anne Klein calls Kaufman, 34, and Franco, 33, "the Boys." A team since Kaufman hired Franco for his first job out of Parson's School of Design, they have worked for Bob Mackie and Valentino. Before coming to Anne Klein, they brought Emanuel / Emanuel Ungaro--an American manufacturer whose only connection to the Parisian designer is the use of his name--from annual sales of $2 million to $110 million in five years, the equivalent of a race car soaring from zero to 60 in a nanosecond.

Their mission at Anne Klein is to return the label to its former glory. And what a glory it was.

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